The roots of sexual violence

by Sandra Bloodworth • Published 12 July 2015

The deepest problems of modern life flow from the attempt of the individual to maintain the independence and individuality of his existence against the sovereign powers of society, against the weight of the historical heritage and the external culture and technique of life.

Georg Simmel, “The Metropolis of Modern Life”[1]

What [individuals] are coincides with their production, both with what they produce and with how they produce. Hence what individuals are depends on the material conditions of their production…

[We do not set out from] what men say, imagine, conceive, nor from men as narrated, thought of, imagined, conceived, in order to arrive at men in the flesh; but from real, active men and on the basis of their real life process we demonstrate the development of the ideological reflexes and echoes of this life process.

Marx and Engels, The German Ideology[2]

Twenty-five years ago the slogan “Break the silence on sexual violence!” echoed around Australia’s university campuses and streets. By 1991 governments had been forced to at least appear to take the issue of violence against women seriously. The Victorian government developed a series of TV advertisements aimed at changing community attitudes about domestic violence. During the 1980s governments, police forces and official bodies had held an unprecedented number of enquiries and conferences into violence against women, increasingly concentrating on domestic violence. All kinds of task forces were set up in state police forces. Even the Australian Federal Police issued Domestic Violence: Notes for the Guidance of Police Officers![3] By 1993 domestic violence was a topic of discussion in the media. On 3 June The Age ran two headlines, “The war on women” and “Epidemic of violence”.[4]

In the intervening two decades, significant shifts have occurred in the public discourse surrounding the issue of male violence against women. A 2014 Guardian survey of police chiefs from every state found unanimous support amongst them for campaigns designed to “tackle” domestic violence and a willingness to acknowledge the inadequacies of police action in the past.[5] The then Victorian police commissioner Ken Lay blamed “a wider culture where vulgar and violent attitudes to women are common”. Most of them referred to the need to set up support systems and services for survivors of family violence.[6] None referred to where women walk at night or the clothes they wear – a far cry from the silence which had previously surrounded domestic violence or the old assumptions that women must have asked for it, or simply invented lies. Tony Abbott, known more for his in-your-face male chauvinism than support for women’s rights, made domestic violence an urgent priority for the Council of Australian Governments in April 2015 and appointed Ken Lay and the Australian of the Year Rosie Batty as founding members of an advisory panel on violence against women.

Much has therefore changed with regard to domestic violence and the willingness of authorities to acknowledge it. Positive as this is in many ways, the focus on domestic violence does however create a distorted impression of the phenomenon of sexual violence in society overall, which can form an impediment to fully understanding the problem and how to address it. The evidence of widespread and varied abuse is incontrovertible: abuse among LGBTI intimate partners; abuse of children, the elderly, sick and mentally ill in schools, churches and other institutions charged with their care; male rape; male violence towards women in the armed forces; and the use of sexual intimidation and violence in regimes of war and torture. In this article I will argue that sexual violence against women can only be fully understood in the context of this much wider sexual abuse. When considering concrete evidence I will mostly draw on Australian experience, although some will be from the US, a country with comparable living standards and political traditions. While it is the case that violence against women is intractable in both Australia and the US, in countries where women’s rights are even less recognised and supported the levels of violence are often more extreme. A close comparative analysis would be needed in order to explain differences and similarities between different cultures and historical experience.

I argue in this article that sexual abuse is deeply rooted in the structures of capitalism. Capitalism is a system in which commodity production and wealth creation is a process that dominates human beings, not one under our democratic control and subordinated to our needs. This is the social context in which the existence and prevalence of sexual violence has to be understood. In this context I explain why hierarchies of authority and status are all sites of abuse, and by examining sexuality under capitalism, I suggest why so much of that abuse is sexual. Capitalism is furthermore an unstable system of crisis, so I also look at the impact over the past three decades of neoliberalism, the key way in which the capitalist class has sought to cope with the end of the long post-war boom. This helps explain governments’ inadequate responses, and why they have not made any notable impact on the levels of sexual violence.

This analysis points to what Marxists have always maintained, that while it may be possible to mitigate violence against women,[7] it will never be eradicated while capitalism rules. A society without sexual violence, and one in which women are genuinely free and equal, will only be possible when capitalism is destroyed root and branch.[8] The kinds of programs, campaigns and actions designed to completely eliminate sexual violence will therefore only be effective insofar as they help to contribute toward building the necessary class consciousness, solidarity and collective organisations which will be vital to achieving that end.

Why governments won’t really tackle domestic violence

At first glance it might seem that sexual violence and abuse is entrenched because of the silence in which it has traditionally been shrouded, particularly within the church and other institutions. But just breaking this silence has made very little difference. Regular media headlines and articles still proclaim there is an “epidemic” of family violence, and many suggest that it is getting worse.[9] It is very difficult to get a clear picture of the prevalence of sexual violence against women. Because the police have successfully convinced more women that complaints will be taken seriously, rates of reporting are increasing. But an increase in reporting does not necessarily correlate with an increase in actual instances of violence or abuse. Actual rates, and their accompanying trends, are notoriously difficult to measure. Some statistics are used in ways that do not distinguish between sexual and other forms of violence or family abuse. And researchers point out that even in private interviews many people will not admit to abuse, as it makes them feel ashamed, suffering from internalised ideas that they must have somehow contributed to it. For others, it still seems a private matter which they find difficult to discuss. In the Guardian survey above, contrary to most public statements and popular perceptions of escalating rates of violence, Tasmania, the Northern Territory and Queensland claimed family violence assaults had declined in the last year. But whatever the underlying trend is, there is little evidence to suggest that levels of intimate partner violence have declined significantly over four decades, despite a number of reforms which have improved the position of women.

Married women couldn’t work in the public service until 1966. Until the 1970s women could not serve on a jury and could be paid less than a man doing the same job; divorce was very difficult, child care almost non-existent, single mothers were derided and the supporting mother’s benefit only became available in 1973. Women were clearly not equal citizens. The first women’s refuge, named Elsie, was only opened in inner Sydney in 1974. It is still very difficult for women to leave a violent man, but it was virtually impossible for most just three decades ago. Women’s participation in the paid workforce has steadily risen from 48 percent in 1992 to 59.1 percent today, increasing the possibility of economic independence.[10] This indicates that the combination of propaganda to change men’s attitudes, the winning of some degree of formal equality for women and the establishment of basic services to help women leave violent relationships – all reforms Marxists and feminists argued were necessary to reduce sexual violence – appear to have made little difference. This needs some explanation.

The radicalism of the late 1960s and 70s was imbued with optimism; it seemed that reform was inevitable, and struggles of the oppressed were pushing on a slightly ajar door which could be opened, even if it took something of a shove. But recession from 1975, attacks by the ruling class and a grossly inadequate political response by union leaders and the Labor Party resulted in a drastic decline in union membership – from about 54 percent of workers unionised to 17 percent today. This political offensive has created an increasingly depoliticised and right wing environment. This in turn lays the basis for the ruling class neoliberal agenda to more comprehensively impose right wing ideology, attack workers’ right to organise, and cut taxes on business. Cuts to government spending on welfare, health and education have put many families and individuals under increasing stress. These attacks also highlight how women’s oppression is structured into the system. The gender pay gap is widening, partly explained by the fact that 46.4 percent of women work only part time, making up nearly 70 percent of all part time workers, but also because industries where women are dominant tend to be lower paid than where men are clustered.[11] The result has been the redistribution of wealth from the working class to the capitalist class over the past four decades.[12] But this does not slake their thirst for more. The Abbott government’s class war budget of 2014 was a move to step up this process.[13]

At the same time as governments talk about confronting family violence, line up for photo opportunities on White Ribbon Day, set up royal commissions, enquiries and inter-governmental conferences, they have been cutting and “restructuring” social services in ways which ensure family violence will continue unabated. This hypocrisy is the result of governments increasingly looking to opportunistically promote campaigns against sexual violence for their own purposes while at the same time implementing neoliberal policies of cuts and privatisation.

Through these campaigns, the state can be portrayed as the protector of the moral integrity of society, and action against sexual violence can reinforce repressive measures such as harsher laws against perpetrators and more jails to accommodate the results. This fits with more general law and order campaigns which both reflect and reinforce the more right wing terrain in the absence of the resistance which was possible in the 1970s. But more than that, the gloss of “concern” and support for women against abhorrent crimes potentially increases the standing of the police in society. Governments sense it could boost their credibility to implement other reactionary policies. Because of the rightward trend within feminism, and with the left seriously weakened, there is virtually no pressure on them to implement policies which would actually make a difference.

And this is reflected in the catalogue of government measures which undermine women’s independence and ability to get out of abusive relationships. The Abbott government allocated a paltry $16.7 million over three years to a National Awareness Campaign to Reduce Violence Against Women and their Children in the 2015 budget. Funding for homelessness and Aboriginal legal services amounting to a ludicrously inadequate $255.4 million give no security for these programs beyond two years.[14] This doesn’t make up for nearly $300 million of cuts to services which impact women escaping family violence.

A summary of some of the consequences of cuts and neglect makes it clear. Australia-wide, half the women seeking places in refuges have to be housed temporarily in motels. The waiting time for a place is growing all the time because refuges are filled with women who can’t find affordable housing and have nowhere else to go. Five years ago, women in Victoria only had to wait one night in a motel; now they wait an average of five nights. Research shows that 50 percent of women who go to a motel room go back to the home they fled the next day because it’s just too difficult. Only three of every 100 two bedroom rental lettings were affordable for a single parent living on welfare in the December 2014 quarter. There are no programs to change this situation, even though it is well known that lack of housing is one of the main reasons women can’t leave an abusive relationship. Yet the Abbott government cut funding to the National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness by $44 million, with no budget allocated to it beyond 2015. If the partnership is cancelled, as many expect it to be, at least some homelessness services will be forced to close.[15]

The NSW Liberal minister for women, Pru Goward, claimed in early 2015 that the government was tackling domestic violence through the “historic” It Stops Here reforms. A miserable $3.25 million a year was allocated and for only three years![16] What is “historic” is the fact that in its 2014 budget, funding for women’s refuges and specialist domestic violence and women’s homelessness services was slashed and “restructured”.

It is a deliberately convoluted and complex maze of changes – but the outcomes are crystal clear. At least 20 women’s refuges in Sydney, some operating for more than 40 years, and scores of other homelessness and women’s services across the state, have had their funding cut. What’s even more horrifying is that these cuts are just the latest. Over the past two years, 80 services have been lost; more than 400 providers of specialist women’s domestic violence and homelessness services have been reduced to fewer than 70.[17]

The outcome of this restructuring is truly shocking. Services were told they couldn’t bid, in a tender process they were all subjected to, for only those services they had been providing. Other than the 20 remaining women’s shelters the rest were mostly handed over to faith-based charities. Even the NSW assistant police commissioner, Mark Murdoch, voiced concerns: “It’s like, OK, we were making good use of that shelter, now we’ve got to find somewhere else to refer victims to.”[18]

Now abused women seeking a place in a refuge have to stand in line with all the homeless. In often flimsy structures, traumatised women, the mentally ill, even violent men are “sheltered” together. In Maitland, Jan McDonald, CEO of Carrie’s Place, which has been a refuge for 35 years, told the Maitland Mercury of the consequences of not being permitted to offer a women-only refuge. Women and men from the same family have had to be taken in. Almost immediately they had the situation where a man “turned around and boasted to the female, ‘Ha ha, they’re helping me as well.’”[19]

We could add many more examples. Cuts to any number of services which may not seem directly relevant have a cascading effect. “Restructuring” (read cuts) of Medicare Locals by the Abbott government reduced them from 61 to 31 across Australia. Many have been subsumed into “super regions”, with some relocated many kilometres away, making them inaccessible. Many of the Locals fund grassroots centres which provide things like “anger management for men” and programs to improve understanding of issues related to sexual violence and sex education for young people.[20] At the same time as all these cuts are being imposed in the name of “balancing budgets”, both Liberal and Labor governments have maintained determined support for the notoriously right wing chaplaincy program in schools to the tune of a quarter of a billion dollars – a program which promotes the sexist stereotypes, homophobia and backward attitudes towards sex which help fuel sexual violence not just towards women, but also LGBTI people, children and many others in vulnerable circumstances.[21]

Governments can’t claim to simply misunderstand the issues. That bastion of reaction, the Productivity Commission, urged state, territory and federal governments to increase funding to legal services by $200 million, and the Allen Consulting report, commissioned by the Abbott government, found funding for legal assistance was already inadequate to meet the government’s own objectives. Yet Michael Smith, the CEO of Victoria’s Eastern Community Legal Centre, told Fairfax media: “Family violence is about a third of all the work that community legal centres are doing across the country, so it’s a bit hollow to talk about family violence being a national priority while you’re cutting funding out of these services.” Fourteen centres in Victoria alone lost federal funding after the Abbott government slashed $20 million from community legal centres.[22]

It goes without saying that cuts to services to Indigenous communities make an already tragic situation worse. Indigenous women are said to be 31 times more likely to be victims of domestic violence than non-Indigenous. Family Violence Prevention Legal Services (FVPLS), the only program of its kind dedicated to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander victims of family violence, suffered a $3.6 million cut in Abbott’s 2014 budget. In December 2014, when FVPLS became the responsibility of prime minister Abbott, it was effectively defunded and has no guarantee of any future funding.[23]

The priorities of the system are not the needs of the oppressed and are not geared to improving workers’ conditions or giving people more control over their lives. Profit and the power of the ruling class are the priority. Today that means more cuts, fewer rights and less say over their lives for workers and the oppressed. Women’s oppression is a key plank in the armoury which underpins the system. And so sexual abuse of women is tied closely to the structures, needs and priorities of capitalism.[24] We will see below that the other manifestations of sexual violence are also the result of this logic.

Evolving understanding of sexual assault

Before the 1970s women’s movement, most theorists had suggested that rape was a perversion, that rapists were mentally ill, some that the rapists’ behaviour was the result of socialisation by a strong maternal figure or a weak father figure; all painted a picture of individuals unable to control their sexual and aggressive impulses, or with fears of castration, homosexual tendencies and so on. As Donat and D’Emilio conclude: “The focus was on understanding the plight of the man… [the woman’s] victimization was simply a by-product of his pathology.” [25]

Over four decades, feminists’, Marxists’ and other theorists’ views about sexual violence have continually changed. Early writings of second-wave feminism did not deal with violence against women in any systematic way.[26] Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sexwhich was in a lot of ways a challenge to the prevalent ideas about women – argued that virtually all sexual relations between men and women constituted violence. She uses all the language of the gender stereotypes of man the strong, forceful partner, women passive, dominated, submissive: the woman is “taken”, she is “invaded”, she “yields” to men’s sexual advances.[27] For de Beauvoir “the female…is the prey of the species”.[28]

Susan Brownmiller, a radical feminist, broke the silence on rape with her book Against Our Will, published in 1975. She states that until a discussion of rape she attended in 1970 she thought “rape wasn’t a feminist issue”, and that “the women’s movement had nothing in common with rape victims”.[29] Diana Russell writes that even in the eighties, feminists in the US were reluctant to take up the question of rape in marriage.[30] When she did eventually deal with the subject, Brownmiller made a crudely reductionist argument. Women, she asserted, are physiologically vulnerable to sexual attack, and once “men discovered that they could rape, they proceeded to do it”.[31] Apart from her serious theoretical errors and historically inaccurate claims, she based her arguments on police records, focusing on stranger danger. But research soon revealed that most sexual abuse of women was perpetrated by men they knew – family members, friends, neighbours – and that most violence against women occurs within the walls of the family home.[32] Nevertheless, in spite of a slow beginning and theoretical weaknesses, debates within the women’s movement established the view of male rape of women as the result of our sexist culture. Some Marxists went further, arguing it was the result of the structures of capitalism and alienation, with sexism the ideological reflection of them.[33]

The reality of sexual violence

Today, enquiries into churches and every institution in which the vulnerable are placed for care have revealed the hard cold fact that sexual abuse of children, both female and male, and of the elderly, disabled and those suffering mental ill health is rife in all of them. A clearer view of this widespread sexual abuse is essential for a full understanding of gendered sexual abuse and devising strategies for dealing with it. As I write the Royal Commission on Institutional Child Sexual Abuse is hearing horrific evidence of a paedophile ring of Catholic priests in Ballarat, Victoria. Jesuits, Christian Brothers, nuns and others in positions of authority in Catholic institutions abused and traumatised large numbers of children in the church’s schools and parishes possibly since the 1940s, definitely during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. One third of one witness’s class have since committed suicide, part of a widespread pattern which emphasises the endemic sexual abuse suffered by unknown numbers of young boys and girls.[34]

By its own admission, between 1996 and 2013 the church distributed $48 million in compensation to victims. Given that the average compensation payout (based on Victorian figures) is about $36,000, this in effect is an admission of well over a thousand sexual abuse cases. More than 2,200 had approached the program for compensation by mid-2015, and many thousands of new claims by both male and female victims are likely to result from the royal commission.[35] With denials and cover-ups by the church, the defence of abusers by the likes of Cardinal George Pell and bullying of victims, who is to say it has ended? Similar patterns have been revealed by enquiries into the institutions of the Protestant churches, Jewish schools and the Salvation Army. Children are still removed by governments from families said to be at risk and dumped into situations where, testimonies in all enquiries would indicate, they are very likely to suffer sexual abuse.

A number of studies of child abuse in Australia between 2001 and 2010 were summarised by the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS). They were based on interviews with adults ranging in ages from 18 to 59. All these researchers asked about non-penetrative and penetrative sexual abuse. Non-penetrative abuse of girls ranged from 20.6 to 33.6 percent, of boys from 10.5 to 15.9 percent. Females reported penetration at rates of 7.9 to 12 percent and males 4.0 to 7.5 percent.[36] Another survey conducted in 2001 found similar patterns if you compare women and men: “Non-penetrative CSA was twice as common among women (33.6%) than men (15.9%). Approximately 12% of women and 4% of men reported unwanted penetrative experiences.” However researchers noted that older men were more likely to report abuse than young, and of women who had had intercourse before 16 older women were more likely than young to say it was non-consensual. This was taken to imply that child sex abuse rates were possibly declining, but that is most likely too much of an assumption, especially since the finding is not substantiated by later surveys.[37] Another weakness of the research not mentioned in the AIFS report is that the sex or relationship to the child of perpetrators (family members, teachers, priest etc.) was not listed. In spite of the difficulties, these findings, more clinical than the anecdotal evidence brought to life by the royal commission, indicate that sexual abuse of children is not insignificant and could well be more prevalent than the figures suggest.

The LGBTI website Same Same reports:

It is colloquially considered that the LGBTI community suffers domestic violence at similar rates to the straight community. The data from ACON notes that 41 percent of lesbians and 28 percent of same sex attracted men have experienced some form of abuse in a relationship, combining this with 61.8 percent of transgender men and 42.9 percent of intersex women.[38]

A 2008 Victorian study found that 26 percent of LGBTI respondents had experienced such abuse. Other research indicates that the gender stereotypes, homophobia and transphobia all create pressures which contribute to levels of abuse and difficulties in ending it. Women report more intimate partner violence than gay men. However it can be more difficult for men to admit the abuse for reasons related to the stereotype of masculinity and in particular of gay men:

[S]exual coercion among gay men has been regarded as virtually oxymoronic. Dominant discourses of masculinity and male sexuality…render the possibility that sex could be unwanted for men as an almost unthinkable proposition.[39]

Bianca Fileborn, an AIFS researcher, commented that some authors

have argued that…homophobia and heterosexism are the key distinguishing factors between violence in heterosexual and GLBTIQ relationships, both in terms of the ability of perpetrators to exploit these to their advantage, and in terms of forming unique barriers to the recognition and reporting of violence in GLBTIQ relationships.

She concluded:

Feminist theory on sexual violence has, by and large, excluded the possibility of sexual violence occurring within same-sex relationships (and particularly lesbian relationships, which have at times been depicted as a kind of “utopia” for women) by almost exclusively focusing on or conceptualising sexual violence as something done by men to women. To some extent this has contributed, though not necessarily intentionally, to the occlusion of sexual violence experienced and/or perpetrated by GLBTIQ individuals.[40]

We can also say it has led to male rape being a seriously under-researched area. It has become clear that the rates of sexual abuse men experience is possibly considerably higher than previously recognised. For one thing, the problem researchers have in interviews and under-reporting to police are known to be even more pronounced among men. But researchers have paid little attention to the possibility of men’s experience of sexual abuse. This is partly a result of the inadequate understanding of rape. In debates among feminists, the word “rape” has been interpreted by almost everyone in too narrow a sense, as if there is rape, full stop: penetration of a vagina by a penis. This ignores the multiple kinds of rape and the specificity of different circumstances of rape.[41] As Lynne Segal argues against feminists like Susan Griffin and Brownmiller who held that men are not raped, women are capable of sexual abuse and rape of men, and men are raped by other men.[42] Until 2012 the FBI defined rape as a crime only committed against women. This raises the possibility that rape of men is more prevalent than thought, at least in the US where this definition informed research.[43] The enthusiasm for this topic by reactionary men’s groups has cast a shadow which discouraged left wing researchers from admitting that men are abused and that some women abuse. Nevertheless the dominant gender stereotype of the aggressive, dominating man encouraged us to think of men as less likely to be victims, unlike “submissive” women. Even much feminist research was impacted by these assumptions and anyone such as the socialist feminists Lynne Segal and Linda Gordon who acknowledged both that men are raped and that women can be sexual abusers was greeted with hostility.

In a 2008 article Segal mentions 200 pieces of research over the last few decades which concluded that “women are as physically aggressive, or more aggressive, than men in their relationships with their spouses or male partners”.[44] Twenty years earlier Linda Gordon had written that “in certain circumstances women were quite as likely as men to use physical violence against partners or children”. Also unpopular was her stress on “poverty and other forms of material deprivation and cultural dislocation” as contributing factors in domestic violence.[45] This was thought to distract from understanding male dominance. And it has been the case that for decades most theorists have unquestioningly assumed that sexual abuse is a means of male domination of women. But this definition does not equip us to understand the role of women in something like the torture at the Abu Ghraib prison, which happened while General Janis Karpinski was in command. US soldiers, about half of whom were women, participated in practices which included rape, but also other sexually charged methods of humiliation, of both men and women. Male prisoners were forced into poses that could be photographed to simulate oral sex. Humiliations included being forced to wear women’s underwear, or to masturbate in front of their tormentors. Lynndie England, whose laughing poses in the midst of this sexual torture became a central image associated with the exposure of US soldiers’ crimes, would later say in court that the poses and acts were all for the fun of the soldiers and she didn’t think it was wrong. The fact that the soldiers uploaded images of these outrages to the internet gives weight to her statements, even though she later retracted them at her retrial.[46]

It is the case though that researchers such as Richard Gelles, much quoted by men’s groups who argue that the incidents of domestic violence are fairly equal between women and men, points out that the levels of harm inflicted by men are significantly worse, leaving women with more serious injuries. While homicide is not an indicator of the levels of ongoing abuse, homicide statistics do back up Gelles’s argument. Of the 877 homicides reported in NSW over 10 years to 2010, 108 were women killed by their intimate partners. Over the whole ten years, “there were no cases where a woman was a domestic violence abuser who killed a male domestic violence victim”.[47] Nevertheless, as Segal argues against her critics:

The point is that admitting the existence of women’s aggression does not in any way contradict the cultural reality that “masculinity” is signified in terms of practices of physical strength, assertiveness and dominance over women.[48]

A National Crime Victimization Survey of 2012-13 in the US found that in 40,000 households, 38 percent of those who experienced sexual abuse of some kind were men and 46 percent of them claimed the perpetrator was a woman. It does not serve women’s interests to bury the facts, nor to deny men who experience abuse the support they need, simply because these findings jar with common perceptions or expectations about abuse.[49] Publication of these figures caused an outraged storm from those who are involved in campaigning for women violated by men. However, ideas about sexual abuse have evolved over many decades as research has shone a light on dark corners of people’s lives, challenging preconceived ideas. When the feminist legal scholar Lara Stemple read the NCVS report she rang to query their results. Perhaps they had made a mistake? Now we have the results of an exhaustive two years’ study and research by her and Ilan Meyer, published in the American Journal of Public Health, which found “widespread sexual victimization among men in the United States”. This is not the well-known anti-feminist “men’s rights” propaganda. On the contrary, their ground-breaking research is described by them as explicitly based on “feminist principles that emphasize equity, inclusion, and intersectional approaches; the importance of understanding power relations; and the imperative to question gender assumptions”. They argue:

The sexual victimization of women was ignored for centuries. Although it remains tolerated and entrenched in many pockets of the world, feminist analysis has gone a long way toward revolutionizing thinking about the sexual abuse of women, demonstrating that sexual victimization is rooted in gender norms and is worthy of social, legal and public health intervention. We have aimed to build on this important legacy by drawing attention to male sexual victimization, an overlooked area of study.

We take a fresh look at several recent findings concerning male sexual victimization, exploring explanations for the persistent misperceptions surrounding it.

They conclude:

[D]epictions of sexual victimization reinforce the stereotypical sexual victimization paradigm, comprising male perpetrators and female victims. As we demonstrate, the reality concerning sexual victimization and gender is more complex.[50]

Sexual violence towards men in prisons is now the subject of research in the US, where such huge numbers of men are incarcerated it could not be ignored any longer. An article by Jill Filipovic in The Guardian was titled “Is the US the only country where more men are raped than women?” indicating the enormity of the issue coming to light with preliminary research.[51] Partly it reflects the horrendous numbers of men in prison in the US. In Australia the issue of sexual assault in prisons remains under-researched. David Heilpern has done the only serious research into male rape in jail that I have seen. He found that over a quarter of those he interviewed reported that they had been sexually assaulted. More than half said that they had been threatened with sexual assault.[52]

Not only is the widespread prevalence of sexual abuse now revealed, but all the evidence shows that supposedly respectable institutions, believed to be pillars of a decent society, take extraordinary measures such as threats, manoeuvres, millions of dollars thrown at legal battles or offers of bribes, to silence survivors. Hundreds of thousands of people over two hundred years in white Australia have looked the other way – that is if they were not complicit in the crimes. Sexual violence – not just between intimate partners, not just towards women or adults but towards every vulnerable or oppressed group – is endemic in this society.

Sexual violence against women is not happening in isolation from these widespread examples. This raises fundamental issues: why do people sexually abuse those in their care, and why do respectable institutions turn a blind eye? To answer we need to turn to the totality of the capitalist system and the consequences of how it is organised.

Capitalism, exploitation, oppression, alienation

As soon as you’re born they make you feel small

By giving you no time instead of it all

Till the pain is so big you feel nothing at all

They hurt you at home and they hit you at school

They hate you if you’re clever and they despise a fool

‘Til you’re so fucking crazy you can’t follow their rules

When they’ve tortured and scared you for 20 odd years

Then they expect you to pick a career

When you can’t really function, you’re so full of fear

Keep you doped with religion, and sex, and TV

And you think you’re so clever and classless and free

But you’re still fucking peasants as far as I can see

There’s room at the top they are telling you still

But first you must learn how to smile as you kill

If you want to be like the folks on the hill

John Lennon, Working Class Hero.

For Marx, “the whole of human servitude is involved in the relation of the worker to production, and all relations of servitude are nothing but modifications and consequences of this relation”.[53] Put simply, all the oppression and horrors we see around us arise from the basic fact of exploitation of the working class by capital and the particular way that is carried out. Analyses which consider questions in isolation remain partial explanations, because they offer only a description of this “enchanted, perverted, topsy-turvy world” divorced from the underlying structures.[54] If we want to understand sexual violence we need to start with the most basic fact of capitalism and develop a picture of the structures and social relations, the ideologies and state practices which make such widespread abuse possible.

The exploitation capitalism rests on gives rise to the oppression of the working class. Because this oppression exists for the vast majority, it is invisible compared with the bigotry and discrimination experienced by groups who are recognised as suffering specific oppression. But rule by a minority means the working class must be systematically excluded from any real decision-making as a class. And as John Lennon’s savage lyrics sum up, it’s much more deeply embedded in working class experience than simply economic or political decision-making. How could a tiny minority live by exploiting the vast majority if those who produce the wealth were self-confident, with a sense of self-worth? Lillian Rubin, an American writer, summed up the experience of this oppression and hinted at some of its consequences in her book Worlds of Pain: Life in the Working-Class Family:

Children know. They know when their teachers are contemptuous of their family… They know there are no factory workers, no truck drivers, no construction workers who are the heroes of the television shows they watch. They know their parents are not those who “count”… And perhaps most devastating of all, they know that their parents know these things as well… Why else would they carry within them so much anger – anger that lashes out irrationally at home, anger that is displaced from the world outside where its expression is potentially dangerous?[55]

Under capitalism, particular groups such as women, indigenous people, migrants, LGBTI people, religious minorities, children, the elderly and the disabled suffer specific oppressions which divide workers in a myriad of ways, subjecting some people to multiple oppressions.

Secondly, the fact that this is a system based on the universal production of commodities has profound implications for human relationships and the way society is organised. The mass of producers is divested of any control over the means of production; workers’ ability to work is itself turned into a commodity, its price set on a market and paid for by the hour. Workers labour, not to produce what they need, but to receive a wage. This very activity, which should be creative and life-affirming, becomes nothing but drudgery, producing wealth for those who dominate our lives, and in fact increasing their power over us. The products of workers’ labour stand as alien objects, as a power beyond and opposed to them. This alienation means that for the worker, life appears to be dominated by the products of their labour. It seems as though our lives are under the control of alien, uncontrollable forces such as “the economy” and “the market”. In Marx’s words:

The devaluation of the human world grows in direct proportion to the increase in value of the world of things. Labour not only produces commodities; it also produces itself and the workers as a commodity.[56]

The fact that everything is exchanged, not between those who make things, but on the impersonal market, obscures how capitalism works. Working to produce commodities for a market obscures the social connections between those who make them and those who eventually will use them. Workers have no say over what is produced and extremely little over what they will produce. They generally don’t have the luxury of deciding they would prefer to make something useful such as solar panels rather than say weapons. And so “the social character of men’s labour appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the products of their labour… [A] definite social relation between men…assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things.”[57] As Marx argued early in chapter one of Capital, so he concludes near the end of the third volume. “In capital…we have the complete mystification of the capitalist mode of production, the conversion of social relations into things”.[58]

This results in the estrangement of one human being from another, and the world is experienced as alien and fragmented. As Bertell Ollman says, “the whole has broken up into numerous parts whose interrelation to the whole can no longer be ascertained. This is the essence of alienation.” This “splintering of human nature into a number of misbegotten parts”, [59] and the actual domination of capital over our lives, creates in the exploited feelings of powerlessness and throws a veil of mystification over the structures of exploitation. The market, plus the fact that our ability to labour is a commodity, paid not for the quality or usefulness of what we do but by the hour, obscures how capitalism works. Therefore it is difficult to reject the dominant ideas of capitalism – common sense ideas which seem to reflect experience, such as we need bosses to organise society, we are all individuals, responsible for what we make of our lives, women are not suitable to run state affairs, the only “natural” sexual relationship is heterosexual and so on. This explains why the mass of people accept some version of ruling class ideology.

Marx further develops our understanding of this system “whose inherent laws impose themselves only as the mean of apparently lawless irregularities”. Who knows whether the actual social value, measured by the amount of labour necessary for its production, actually corresponds to its price on the market? Unlike in a simple barter system it is not predictable. And so “price ceases altogether to express value. Objects that in themselves are no commodities, such as conscience, honour, etc., are capable of being offered for sale.”[60] And so everything in capitalism can be turned into a commodity to be bought and sold, including leisure, the promise of or actual sexual gratification for a price, even prestige and status. The care of the vulnerable is up for sale and profit, as are even torture and persecution.

There are those who argue that alienation affects everyone and so cannot explain something like sexual abuse because not everyone is abused. It’s true that alienation is not just about individual experience, it is an overarching, all-pervasive condition of capitalism. That is precisely why it is our starting point, not because every individual or group act can be read off this insight in some reductionist, mechanical way. But it provides a basic explanation of why such behaviours can occur at all and why abuse is not just a gendered phenomenon, but can take many forms. Marx’s method is to rise from the abstract to the concrete. The concrete, especially in capitalism, where the social structures are so obscured, can only be understood in a theoretical framework. The mediating factors which influence how this alienation is expressed and experienced must be investigated in order to understand sexual abuse. We have to analyse factors such as the role of stereotypes of women as sex objects to be controlled and used to satisfy men’s needs, the socialisation of men to assume their entitlement to dominate others, the promotion by those in positions of authority and influence of homophobia, transphobia, prurient attitudes to sex, discrimination against the disabled and so on. The role of the family, institutions which have influence and control over the vulnerable, ideologies which justify some forms of abuse all have to be understood in the context of a particular society, its traditions, levels of class consciousness, the state of the class struggle. Nothing is timeless or unchanging.

Georg Lukács, in his History and Class Consciousness, provides an important exposition of the Marxist concept of alienation. As part of that he explains how state bureaucracies and hierarchical institutions flatten all human relationships and deaden human empathy. The system as a whole has to rely on calculations and rationalisations; workers become little more than measurements of time – the half timers, the full timer. For example the royal commission into child abuse strips any identity from those recounting their trauma and puts the perpetrators and those who hid their crimes on a par with their victims by referring to “stakeholders”. The response by institutions to accusations of abuse is notable for its inhumanity. For example, the Catholic church, which promotes itself as concerned with the spiritual and temporal wellbeing of its followers, can’t respond in a human, caring way to people who are clearly traumatised by the brutality of its paedophile priests. According to Broken Rites, the aim of its Towards Healing program is not to monetarily compensate victims, but “is really a business strategy, designed to protect the church’s assets and its corporate image”.[61]

Hierarchies of authority demand order and regulation so they put some people in charge over others with the responsibility for keeping order, disciplining those who do not easily submit to their authority. But the market relations, the system of commodity production and competition are unstable, contradictory and wracked by regular crises. This “requires that every manifestation of life” must exhibit the fact that individuals are dominated by capital; that they “are but part of a mechanism that belongs to the capitalist”.[62] The “workers’ fate is typical of society as a whole in that this self-objectification, this transformation of a human function into a commodity reveals in all its starkness the dehumanised and dehumanising function of the commodity relation”.[63]

In the context of this toxic mix, we can begin to consider why violent, controlling, authoritarian behaviour is possible where some people have authority and control over the vulnerable and oppressed. The abuse is not just the product of dysfunctional individuals. People are turned into predators when they play an oppressive role in a hierarchy. They become tools for the ideological role that enforcers of a bureaucracy are meant to live out. Their actions are not seen as anti-human, just “necessary”. Think of the minister and officials in the immigration department; for them refugees and immigrants are just objects to control and use for political purposes. Most institutions, like churches or schools or prisons, are founded on the basis of formal rationalism. This is what Foucault is talking about in Discipline and Punish: they strictly regiment life, in the name of “bettering” the people who are subject to their authority.

Nevertheless, there is an assumption that people are rational machines, which they are obviously not. Hence, at least some of those in these institutions are somewhat resentful, and at times resist. The guards or instructors come to resent their charges and dehumanise them. But also, the people in charge of a hierarchy have to appear as though they are paragons of enlightened rationality and discipline. This means that the people who uphold a hierarchy are just as reified (Lukács’s term) as those who are subordinated to it – with an important difference being that their livelihood and social status is tied up with their reification.

Why sexual abuse?

But why does sexual intimidation and abuse occur so widely?

Alienation exists to some extent in all class societies because the producers don’t control all of their production. This is taken to an extreme in the capitalist system. This alienation is experienced and expressed in different ways. Marx and Engels identified humans’ ability to labour – using tools, changing ourselves as we change the world around us – as what separates humans from the animal world, at the same time as we remain part of that natural world. Sexuality is also part of human nature.[64] As humans evolved from the apes, tool-making changed those apes into qualitatively different animals. The development of a sociable, cooperative being was accompanied by an evolution in how it experienced sex. Human sexuality evolved in ways which involved a higher degree of pleasure than the apes we evolved from, something indulged in at any time and not subordinated to the needs of procreation. To see sexuality as part of human nature is not to say that the way humans experience sex, how we experience sexuality or exercise our ability to labour, are inextricable from some inner, unchanging soul. Every society constructs the way sexuality is understood and experienced depending on how production and reproduction are organised,[65] just as it does our ability to labour. So for instance, same-sex desire has clearly existed throughout human history, but has been interpreted and experienced in radically different ways. It was only with the rise of capitalism, a mode of production in which the notion of ourselves as individuals is intrinsic to the dominant ideology, that the concept of the “homosexual” individual emerged. Because sexuality, like all aspects of humans’ experience, is socially constructed. As John D’Emilio comments:

[S]ome historians have discarded the view that sexuality is primarily a biological category, an innate, unchanging “drive” or “instinct” immune from the shifts that characterize other aspects of social organization. Instead, as a number of writers have argued, eroticism is also subject to the forces of culture. Human beings learn how to express themselves sexually, and the content of that learning is as varied as the societies that women and men have formed through the ages.[66]

Followers of Michel Foucault usually assume the two concepts – human nature and social construction – are counterposed. But by the end of his life, Foucault was grappling with the concept of an enduring human nature, which he introduced into his philosophy. He did not think this negated his thesis that sexuality is socially constructed. Rather it more fully completed his philosophy.[67]

Foucault, with whom I disagree on questions of power and the anti-humanism which permeates much of his work, has nonetheless provided us with a useful framework to understand sexuality in capitalist society. In his History of Sexuality Volume 1 he outlines the specificity of sexuality under the bourgeoisie by way of an historical account of how their concepts became dominant. He argues that the bourgeoisie could not rule by virtue of blood lines and inherited right. So they were obsessed with the healthy regeneration of their class.[68] As a result, this rising bourgeoisie in early capitalism attributed to sex “a mysterious and undefined power; it staked its life and its death on sex, by making it responsible for its future welfare; it subordinated its soul to sex”. The development of this sexuality involved endless discussion of sex, the pathologising of so-called perversions, psychiatric explanations. Educational institutions “delineated areas of extreme sexual saturation”. And “[t]he family was…the misfortune of sex”. Endless discussion and agonising created the image of the “hysterical woman”, the “Malthusian couple” and the perverse adult. It generated theories of children’s sexuality as both threatening and unnatural, and about the dangers of masturbation. A list of prohibitions was articulated “to expel from reality the forms of sexuality that were not amenable to the strict economy of reproduction”.[69]

At first they gave little thought to the exploited masses; but by the mid-nineteenth century, enfeeblement from appalling conditions threatened the very reproduction of labour power, capitalism’s most important commodity. And the working class began to demonstrate its ability to challenge the power of their capitalist rulers. And so the bourgeois ideas of sex and sexuality were deployed for “controlling whole populations in an increasingly comprehensive way”.[70] Foucault’s argument parallels the Marxist explanation of the reorganisation of the working class family in the nineteenth century,[71] albeit expressed in different terms. And his description of the consequences for individuals echoes the Marxist conception of alienation:

From this interplay there has evolved…a knowledge of the subject; a knowledge not so much of his form, but of that which divides him, determines him perhaps, but above all causes him to be ignorant of himself.[72]

While work is drudgery, unemployed workers talk about feeling useless and demeaned, their life force drains from them and they suffer anguish. But with sex it’s different. Sex can be experienced and practised in fulfilling ways in which people relate through sexual activity on more than a physical level, in ways that are not reduced to genitals. But because sex and our sexuality, like everything else, is turned into a commodity, bought and sold, used to sell things, there is also a high degree of alienation of this aspect of our human nature. This turns our body into an object, sex is objectified, and sexual pleasure separated from human interaction. Furthermore, the regulation of sexual behaviour through the formal and informal rules governing marriage and the family further constrains and removes control of sexuality from human beings, creating in the process a distinction between “illicit” and “legitimate” forms of sexual expression.

Foucault conveys why sex and abuse are entwined: “What is peculiar to modern societies, in fact, is not that they consigned sex to a shadow existence, but that they dedicated themselves to speaking of it ad infinitum, while exploiting it as the secret.”[73] And “The power which thus took charge of sexuality set about contacting bodies, caressing them with its eyes, intensifying areas, electrifying surfaces, dramatizing troubled moments… These attractions, these evasions, these circular incitements have traced around bodies and sexes…perpetual spirals of power and pleasure.”[74]

The reified perpetrators of institutional sexual violence are expected to assert their domination and control, which in itself gives them the excuse to take out their own frustrations on those they supervise, or encourages the assumption they have the right to satisfy their own sexual urges while belittling and demoralising their charges. Society does not openly endorse this behaviour, creating an aura of secrecy which mirrors the privacy of most sexual activity, thus eroticising the exercise of power. I think Foucault’s perceptive comments indicate how people can perceive that sexual assault is felt as more demeaning than a bashing or other forms of control: “sex [is] that agency which appears to dominate us and that secret which seems to underlie all that we are.”[75]

The anguish in the stories of agony and suicide which plague the lives of those abused as children or women who have been abused in relationships is palpable, as is widespread horror at the use of sexual abuse in torture; whereas there does not appear to be anything like this impact from the often severe beatings of boys before corporal punishment was outlawed, men bashing each other in drunken brawls and the like. The trope which encapsulates men’s experience in jail is the fear of rape – seen as the worst that can happen to a man. It is fed by homophobia but also the closely related humiliation of being reduced to the status of a woman. So sexual abuse, or even the threat of it, can be a way of imposing power more thoroughly, devastating the victims’ will to resist, than other forms of discipline or punishment in institutional situations, or a way of exerting personal control in a relationship.

The position of workers in institutional bureaucracies is wracked with contradictions. Those expected to exercise control lack any real power themselves, subject as they are to the whims of bureaucracy, government cuts, threats of sackings, low pay and all the other indignities workers suffer. The secrecy which surrounds abuse is not unlike the privacy of the home, a sphere of life which provides an immunity from discovery. At every level it is understood these abuses should not really happen, while they are tolerated and actively covered up, and whistle-blowers rather than abusers are victimised. So priests, prison guards, school teachers and so on, insofar as they embody a strict, disciplinarian lifestyle, may well be miserable and unsatisfied themselves. Because their role trains them to treat people like objects, it is a short jump for them to treat people as the objects of their own impulses – frustration, anger or sexual need. There can be a fine line between ignoring the needs of the person under their authority, psychological or physical coercion and sexual abuse of all kinds.

Given the structural limits to individual choice and the dynamic in bureaucracies towards dehumanisation, it’s a point of optimism about humanity that not everyone trying to keep the order and discipline they’re expected to maintain ends up abusing those in their “care” or under their authority. Even those in authoritarian positions of domination are not just robotic creations of the hierarchy. We are not just objects of social structures, we do still have the capacity for subjective reflection and action. Some at least hold on to some sense of responsibility to protect the people in the institutions they staff. In an interesting exercise in 2001, women activists from the Queensland-based Sisters Inside took over the platform at a conference of correctional personnel working in women’s prisons:

[S]ome [women] playing guards, others playing the roles of prisoners, dramatized a strip search…the gathering was so repulsed by this enactment of a practice that occurs routinely in women’s prisons everywhere that many of the participants felt compelled to dissociate themselves from such practices, insisting that this was not what they did. Some of the guards…simply cried upon watching representations of their own actions outside the prison context.

As Amanda George commented in a documentary on the subject, “without the uniform, without the power of the state, [the strip search] would be sexual assault”.[76]

Outside the situation created by institutional hierarchy those with authority over others may have quite different attitudes and responses. They are not just monsters with no subjectivity. And so some can be convinced not to ill-treat those they supervise, and others never do. Factors such as ideas of class solidarity, commitment to human rights and their own experiences of oppression also influence how they act out their role.

The state and sexual violence

There are many ways sexual violence is openly and deliberately used by the state to instil fear, to denigrate and humiliate oppressed minorities and to impose authority. Rape of women in police cells is rightly feared. Angela Davis showed that worldwide, “[s]exual abuse is surreptitiously incorporated into one of the most habitual aspects of women’s imprisonment, the strip search”.[77] Amanda George and Debbie Kilroy, activists with Sisters Inside argue:

Mandatory strip searching is experienced in a discriminatory manner by women prisoners. Women prisoners, as a group, have a higher incidence of previous history of sexual assault than the general community and they often experience strip searching as a new assault. There is no evidence that mandatory strip searching actually carries out its stated purpose, the prevention of contraband. Any strip search is an unjustified assault on women prisoners by the state.[78]

In regimes of torture sexual humiliation and violence are common, as are threats of such violence against the families of those being tortured. Touching genitals, rape using guns and other instruments, so-called rectal feeding, which is nothing but anal rape, are all documented. In the notorious Abu Ghraib prison we saw several aspects coming together. In actions designed to induce fear, humiliation and demoralisation, male US soldiers raped young boys in front of their mothers while female soldiers filmed them. Rape of women and girls, as a weapon of war, is entrenched – from the US in Vietnam in the 1960s to Bosnia and Herzegovina where it was a means of ethnic cleansing, to Peru, Rwanda, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Cyprus, Haiti, Liberia, Somalia, Uganda and by India in Kashmir. Sexual violation of women has been identified by psychologists and the UN “as the most intrusive of traumatic events, it erodes the fabric of a community in a way that few weapons can”.[79]

In all these ways, the state legitimises, normalises and even promotes sexual violence as a means of domination and control. In less overt ways than the actual use of sexual violence, governments give the nod to such practices in other more covert, coded ways. For instance, the dismissive shrugs of immigration ministers when sexual abuse of asylum seekers is reported under what is clearly an horrendous regime in the detention centre on Nauru; governments’ loyal promotion of churches which are guilty of harbouring sexual predators; governments which on the one hand are known for their law and order injustices and punitive attitudes towards the poor and oppressed, and on the other fail to act against sexual abuse in the ranks of their armed forces; the fact that they undermine services which offer support for victims of sexual abuse. All these and more signal that sexual abuse is not really regarded as a crime – unless it is committed by members of an oppressed group such as Muslims or Aborigines – in spite of rhetoric about opposing family violence.

Sexual abuse and the oppressed

In the context of state-sanctioned use of sexual abuse and the deliberate cover-ups by religious institutions and defence by the respectable classes of those implicated, the sexual abuse of oppressed groups is neither an aberration, nor the acts of irrational individuals. The underlying social and economic structures are backed up by ideologies which justify oppression and create divisions in the working class, thereby fuelling attitudes which lead to sexual abuse.

Rape as a means of denigration, control and victimisation has always been a terrible consequence of racism. Racially oppressed groups are more likely both to experience rape and to be wrongfully accused of it in order to maintain a racist order. Angela Davis explained how integral it was to the dynamics of racist oppression in her book Women, Race and Class: “a weapon of domination, a weapon of repression, whose covert goal was to extinguish slave women’s will to resist and, in the process, to demoralise their men”. [80] A more recent book by Danielle McGuire shows the hypocrisy of white racists who regularly lynched black men in the South in the name of protecting “their” white women while systematically sexually abusing black women. It bears the illuminating title At the Dark End of the Street. In Moree, in western NSW, it was on the dark river banks. The freedom rides of 1965 to towns in western NSW exposed the same racist hypocrisy. Similar processes are common in accounts of the pastoral industry such as Sally Morgan’s My Place. As Amy McQuire argues, a moral panic whipped up by white liberals about male sexual abuse of women and children (later proven to be unfounded by the Australian Crime Commission)[81] was used to gain acceptance for the racist NT Intervention, aimed at demoralising and ultimately driving whole communities off their land.[82] On a somewhat different note, the obsessive coverage of a series of gang rapes by Lebanese men in Sydney in 2000 was used as a vehicle for the racist Carr Labor government to stoke anti-Lebanese and anti-Muslim feeling in NSW. Right wing columnist Miranda Devine characterised the rapes as hate crimes against white people.[83] Anyone who knew about the stolen generations knew that stolen Aboriginal girls were often sent to middle class homes where they were abused. Now we know they and the boys were also abused in the church institutions themselves.

The racist narrative of threatening black men’s uncontrollable sexual urges and the fears stoked about stranger danger have an underlying, if perverted, affinity with the stereotype of masculinity promoted by schools, the media and both popular and highbrow culture. Internalised homophobia can lead men who experience same sex attraction to rape men as a way to simultaneously act on their desire and reassert an aggressive or “normal” masculinity. In this alienated way, the rapist demonstrates that he is “normal”. Some male rape may be calculated to humiliate, reducing a man to the status of a woman. As Segal put it, “the notion that to affirm manhood is to ‘penetrate’ another’s body, or to seek ‘active’ sexual pleasure and control over them, by whatever means”[84] is embedded in our culture. Whether it’s a priest with authority over vulnerable children, a teacher with desires for young people, a screw with little constraint on his denigration of prisoners, sexual abuse by men is entwined with the masculinity to which boys are taught to aspire. So understanding the integral role of the sexual stereotypes of male and female to the culture of capitalism, along with the racism and homophobia that intersect with them, is important in understanding many of the various forms sexual abuse takes.

These stereotypes are rooted in the family, a key institution which underpins the capitalist system. It provides a cheap means of reproducing the working class, socialised to accept hierarchies of power and authority, fit to sell their labour power, the most important commodity in the system.[85] In that sense, the family has quite a lot in common with the bureaucracies and other institutions discussed above. It is wracked by contradictions and distorted by alienation like any other social institution. The control over children encourages authoritarian attitudes in parents; children are meant to submit to the structure of authority whether they respect the adults or not. Relationships in the family, which are assumed to be loving and under our control, and the expectations of this private world are more often than not ripped apart by the impact of the realities of life, creating tensions which create the conditions for abuse. This is especially so among workers and the poor and oppressed who have few options to change their position in that wider reality.

In heterosexual personal relationships, we are not dealing with a situation of explicit material power over the other in a country like Australia where women have basic rights. But women enter the relationship on an unequal footing with men, and not just because of sexist assumptions. The gender stereotypes are backed up by the structures of work and the family[86] and so women live with sexual harassment, from leering, suggestive remarks to touching, stalking, unwanted sexual advances to outright sexual abuse in all areas from the workplace to the family.

The stereotypes generated by the family serve to make LGBTI sexuality at best something to be “tolerated”, or ignored, both of which promote the assumption it is somehow “abnormal”. More often it is denigrated, outlawed by religious dictum or rules which forbid same-sex partners at school social events. A Human Rights Commission investigation in 2015 revealed that over 70 percent of LGBTI people interviewed said they had experienced violence, harassment or bullying on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status. Over 90 percent said they knew someone who had.[87]

However, fundamental as they are, the family and the way sexuality is viewed and experienced have been able to be restructured to suit the needs of the ageing system. As the more far-sighted sociologists and commentators argued after the impact of the women’s movement, the sure way to shore up the family was to broaden its definition. Single parents, gay couples – it matters little in the process of reproducing labour power as long as it is privatised and mostly free for the capitalist class and the state.[88] The system, in spite of continuing repressive attitudes to sex, has been able to incorporate the hope of women’s and sexual liberation of the 1970s, with superficial changes which are a tragic caricature of those dreams. And in spite of the changes, the ideal is still based on the old stereotypes; just witness the arguments against LGBTI marriage rights.

The stereotypes about women have also changed. Fifty years ago women lived with the burden of the wowserist stereotype of housewife and mother; rape in marriage was not considered a crime. Even the most serious study of the question available in 1992 showed that women found it difficult to name their experience of unwanted sex with husbands as “rape”.[89] Now we live in a society saturated with semi-pornographic images of women objectified in a myriad of ways. Pornography is no longer sold under the counter. Depicting everything from straight sex to paedophilia, it’s available online for anyone.

Sexual “freedom” under capitalism has meant a multi-billion dollar sex industry. Young people grow up with these porn images as their most common way to learn about sex. Because while society talks about it all the time, and popular culture openly deals with it, inevitably in sexist and demeaning ways, there is still very little sex education or open discussion of sexuality in schools. In this era of raunch culture, the increased commodification of sex, more explicit than in the 1950s, still emphasises women as mere sex objects. Women rarely have sex with a man in movies where their own desires are explicit and central. Women are consistently portrayed as enjoying, not sex as such, but finding satisfaction in fulfilling a man’s needs, revelling in subordinating themselves for men’s pleasure. A British Marxist even noted

the ghastly irony that two recent books on new feminism (Full Frontal Feminism and The New Sexism) have naked women’s torsos on their front covers. The authors may have had little or no control over the cover design but it shows that even when publishing a critique of the commodification of women’s bodies somebody somewhere deems it necessary to do precisely that in order to sell the books.[90]

Feminists Deborah Tolman and Anastasia Powell[91] confirm very clearly, with their studies of young people’s relationships, what Russell found in her survey of married women and what I argued in 1992: what is actually rape is often taken to be seduction. Even when men admit they coerced a woman into sex, many seem to genuinely believe it isn’t rape. In the words of Powell:

[P]orn-chic has been re-cast as the liberated and empowered sexuality for young women…

Young women are encouraged, even expected, to display an active and “out there” sexuality through their behaviour and dress, yet continue to tread an impossibly fine line between being judged as a slut if they go too far or frigid if they do not embrace their “new-found sexual freedom”.[92]

Both Powell and Tolman found that young women feel that if they don’t succeed in holding a relationship together, they have somehow “failed”. This blurs the distinction, even in their own minds, between pressure, coercion and rape because they instinctively feel that if they don’t do what he likes, he might walk away. This is not confined to young people or heterosexuals. At all ages we yearn for a stable, loving relationship, a haven in a heartless world. And if we don’t find it, many have a sense that they have failed somehow. The romance of St Valentine’s Day, the image of the smiling heterosexual couple, also impacts on same-sex couples, which goes a long way to explaining the levels of abuse being reported among them. Powell also argues:

In this post-feminist context it has become difficult to be openly critical of sexual mores (even those regarding consent and sexual violence) without being labelled anti-choice, anti-sex and seen as rejecting the very sexual freedoms that feminism fought to achieve.[93]

But it’s not just the gender stereotypes and the felt need for a stable relationship. There’s the drudgery of work, long hours, low pay, the humiliations meted out by managers, the sense of having no control over your life, perhaps an unexpected sacking, pay cut or speed-up. On the other hand, there’s the expectation that personal relationships are the one area of our lives where we have control. However it’s mostly illusion. The chocolate box image, the dream of stability and (usually heterosexual) love is extremely difficult for most couples to realise given the reality of the rest of their lives. This makes all relationships potentially dangerous hot-houses of thwarted hope. Where does someone vent the frustrations and anger generated by society at large? On loved ones who they sense will not or cannot walk away. People will put up with a lot in order to preserve the hope of fulfilling that dream. Any economic insecurity or vulnerability – such as being in the closet at work or being transgender, suffering a disability or sickness, the lack of housing, the lack of access to social security – all make it that much more difficult to assert one’s autonomy. On the other hand, a partner might undermine the sense of stability in this one area of life by finding another relationship, leading to frantic attempts to assert control, and ultimately to stalking and other controlling behaviour.

And so for many different reasons, subtle control in a relationship can cross the often blurred line to become coercion and even outright brutality. Abuse in all its forms can pervade relationships in a cycle of domination and submission which can be very difficult to break, both because of learned roles and the limited options imposed by the realities of work, unemployment and lack of access to basic necessities. And as Lillian Rubin suggested, it is much more dangerous to take out frustrations and lash out at others in public spaces than in the privacy of the home or a relationship.

Take children – they have no right to autonomy, they are virtually the possessions of their parents with no right to any say over their lives. If the state deems those parents unreliable they can be taken, without their consent, into what is paradoxically called “care” – institutions in which abuse is endemic. In the family, the site of all the tensions I’ve outlined, children are the least able to assert their rights or independence against not just fathers, but also mothers. Why would adults not abuse children in the family? They “belong” to their parents, parents are expected to produce children to be proud of and who don’t get in adults’ way. The combination of control, expectations and someone weaker on whom to vent frustration makes abuse a strong possibility. A 2015 report by the Australian Institute of Criminology found that of 1,088 cases where someone was killed by a family member, 21 percent were children, with more mothers the killers than fathers.[94] The fact that children have no right to autonomy, plus their inexperience and differences in strength, makes them extremely vulnerable in home and public institutions alike. Philistine attitudes to sex, fear of children’s sexuality and the obsession with maintaining a veneer of respectability ensure that if they do report abuse they have little chance of being believed, and even less of action to remove them from danger.

Or think of the elderly, increasingly herded into “retirement villages” or eking out an existence in nursing homes. They are not defined by their rights but purely by their physical needs; they usually have no say over their treatment and are often bullied into taking mind-altering drugs to make them docile. Outside these institutions they experience poverty, discrimination, lack of resources designed to support their needs and so on, making them the subjects of abuse in their families.

The oppressed are sitting targets for alienated behaviour by those in charge of them or with a status which in the eyes of society justifies – or at least tacitly endorses – controlling, domineering attitudes. Men towards women; parents, teachers and other authority figures towards children; priests to their parishioners and so on. This dynamic is strengthened when institutions are understaffed, workers are badly trained, usually low paid and with little union organisation to counteract the fragmented, alienated existence of work under capitalism.

In turn, institutions which limit freedom impact the humanity of those incarcerated in them. For example David Heilpern concluded from his research into sexual assault in Australian male prisons that:

Sexual assault in prison is not about sex, sexual frustration or latent homosexuality – it is about power.

Rigid hierarchical stratifications develop within the closed environment of a prison, and the penis is a weapon of control, ownership and domination. It leaves no visible bruises or scars; and shame, fear and a culture of silence mean that it is easily hidden from or denied by authorities.

[It] is an inevitable result of the systemic and deliberate disempowerment of men in a closed, hierarchical world where state force quashes freedom as a means of punishment.[95]

While most sexual abuse is committed by men, women, in particular circumstances, abuse other women, men and children. The roots of this behaviour are nurtured by the same social and economic conditions: commodity production, alienation, commodification of sexuality and objectified bodies. Women in positions of control over the vulnerable in institutions are subject to the same dehumanisation as men. Men are regarded as of higher status. Women are not socialised to assume their own entitlement, the right to dominate others, but in this reified situation, they attain a status over others. Add to this the normalisation of sexual abuse, the dynamic of sexuality surrounded by secrecy, the pressures to keep authoritarian control and women can become sexual abusers. In the family, the contradiction between the ideology of the family as a haven from the public world and the reality of life under capitalism, women can and do take out their frustrations on children, lacking autonomy as they do, or even lash out at their partners. The gender stereotypes ensure a large proportion of sexual abuse is inflicted on women by men. But it is far from the only form of abuse. Not all men are as domineering, self-confident and aggressive as the stereotype says they should be. Not all women are weak, passive and nurturing. To assert otherwise would be to assume individuals are completely controlled by ideology, which they clearly are not.

What is to be done?

With the media regularly promoting campaigns against domestic violence and the multiple enquiries into abuse of children and others in care, it is imperative that socialists do not just fall in behind populist ideas of what to do. Virtually every government response to demands for action on sexual violence fuels a law and order agenda. Typically, the Victorian Labor government’s submission to the royal commission into family violence it set up in 2015 recommends only punitive measures such as a new charge relating specifically to domestic violence offenders. The Coalition opposition predictably also submitted proposals for mandatory minimum sentences. What either proposal would do to lessen the levels of violence is not explained. Neither submission mentioned funds for ensuring there is accommodation for anyone trying to leave a violent situation or a decent allowance to sustain them.[96] More CCTV in public spaces, restricted bail rights, longer sentences, harsher prison regimes, an end to suspended sentences – these are the “solutions” pushed by police, the media, politicians and most campaigners. But they do nothing to reduce sexual violence. Apart from the fact that jail only happens after the event, study after study has shown they do not deter offenders, and that more time in prison merely produces more violent individuals. The result of such measures is only to diminish the civil rights of everyone at a time when human and civil rights are under attack on all fronts. In Victoria, as a direct result of demands by campaigners after the rape and murder of Jill Meagher in an inner suburb of Melbourne in September 2012, suspended sentences were abolished in all courts. As the chief executive of Jesuit Social Services, Julie Edwards, said, “The removal of suspended sentences as an option for less dangerous crimes will not deliver safer communities.”[97]

There is a growing body of work by criminologists and feminists, especially in the US where the consequences of such campaigns became clear years ago, that shows the problematic nature of political movements which focus on violence against women. There have always been feminists who argued this emphasis undermines women’s confidence, promoting the image of us as eternal victims.[98] It is important to confront the issue not just of demands but of campaigns which in themselves give life to any kind of law and order agenda in the context of neoliberalism and the growth of the punitive state apparatus. Anti-sexist criminologists such as Kristin Bumiller, Dianne L. Martin and Aya Gruber have all written extensively on this subject.

In 2009, Gruber identified the problem this way: “[over] the past several years, feminism has become increasingly identified with crime control and the prosecution of men who commit offenses against women”. Some feminist scholars had begun to express grave concern about being associated with “a punitive, retribution-driven agenda”. She concluded that feminists should “disentangle” their stand against sexual coercion “from a criminal justice system currently reflective of hierarchy and unable to produce social justice”.[99]

Kristin Bumiller, in her book In an abusive state: How neo-liberalism appropriated the feminist movement against sexual violence, described the aim of the book as being to formulate

an understanding of the contemporary political environment which produced…the increasingly coercive state reactions to crimes including sexual violence… [I]n the early 1970s… [there was] a phenomenal growth in the crime control apparatus including increased prosecutorial power, mandatory sentences, and an unprecedented rise in prison populations. At the same time, sexual violence became important to the agenda of the “therapeutic state”, a network of professionals, social workers, and government agents providing service delivery to the poor and disadvantaged. These clients of the welfare state are predominantly women and their children… As a result, the feminist movement became a partner in the unforeseen growth of a criminalized society, a phenomenon with negative consequences not only for minority and immigrant groups of men, but also for those women who are subject to scrutiny within the welfare state.[100]

She shows that it is not only through tougher sentencing and higher incarceration rates that the state is strengthened, but also through measures generally considered to be left alternatives to this – more domestic violence shelters, victim services and rape crisis centres. She argues that this has become another way in which both women and men are drawn into the criminal justice system and their rights undermined. Women who go into shelters are increasingly expected to take legal action against the perpetrator of abuse. Refuges increasingly refuse to take anyone who won’t prosecute because they get no government funding for those who don’t.

This enmeshes women in dealing with partners even if they just want to get away from them. Similar trends are taking off in Australia. This began in the 1980s under the influence of feminists whose orientation was retribution against men. The parenting allowance became tied to the woman’s efforts to force an ex-partner to pay maintenance rather than a right in itself. “Men should pay” was the sentiment, but it entraps women, limiting their ability to get the full allowance without potentially stressful contact with an ex-partner. Today things are becoming much worse. Rates of dual arrest (both women and their male partners being arrested by police during instances of domestic violence) are increasing in Australia as a result of mandatory arrest policies and a greater emphasis on state intervention to resolve domestic conflict. Frequently, this can result in further unrelated charges for women (for drug possession, unpaid fines etc.), which in turn can generate problems with custody of children and even incarceration in some cases. It is self-evident that this is a serious problem for Aboriginal women who dread deaths in custody and already have much higher rates of contact with the injustice system than their non-Indigenous counterparts.

The incorporation of service provision into the state apparatus (often on pain of funding cuts) is another means by which women as well as men can end up being victimised by state measures to combat sexual violence. Recent laws passed in NSW now give police the right to access information about women who are recipients of support services and their male partners’ whereabouts, drug habits and other personal information, without the consent of the women or men concerned. Such encroachments on people’s rights, justified by appealing to concern about sexual violence, do not address the cause of such violence. Instead they serve primarily to give the state more rights to intervene in negative ways in people’s lives. It also highlights that there are virtually no unproblematic demands that can be raised that directly address or work to prevent violence against women. As Bumiller goes on to describe the experience in the United States:

The feminist alliance with the state is to a large extent unavoidable. Concerning violent crimes against women, it is difficult to imagine policies that would not ultimately rely upon the carceral capacities of the state. Clearly, there are some instances of grave harm that require the segregation of offenders for the protection of society. Yet in the United States and other national contexts, it is important to be aware of both the potentialities and limitations of using state power to advance the interests of women. The growth of neo-liberal politics has provided even more reason for skepticism as feminists find their innovations incorporated into the regulatory and criminal justice apparatus.[101]

One of the conclusions she comes to is that “it no longer makes sense to single out violence against women as a specific issue for policy making because there are advantages to seeing it as part of a larger project of enabling women to be more effectual citizens”.[102] In other words, fighting women’s structural oppression is the most effective means to combat sexual violence.

The moral panic created around the murder of Jill Meagher in 2012 provoked sharp debates about whether the left should get behind street marches led by police chiefs, the Liberal Premier and the Mayor of Melbourne, Robert Doyle, the former leader of the state Liberal Party, amidst calls for increased law and order measures. Doyle had just weeks before ordered the violent removal of the Occupy Melbourne protest from the City Square. He stood to improve his image with small-l liberals somewhat by leaping on this band wagon which tapped into horror of such sexual violence. As Viktoria Ivanova found eighteen months later, this campaign had exactly the outcome those opposed to participating predicted and is clearly seen in this way:

In Victoria, sweeping law and order “reforms” have resulted in the prisoner population increasing 14 percent over the last year – that’s the highest increase in the country. “The Victorian government’s change in policy”, wrote ABC journalist Sean Rubinsztein-Dunlop in July, “can be traced back to the public outcry over the brutal murder of Jill Meagher in 2012, which sparked a tightening of parole, sentencing and bail laws”.[103]

Louise O’Shea made this point at the time: “Moral panics about crime or violence between individuals, in particular the need to protect white women and children from harm, are almost always used by governments to promote reactionary ideas and to justify attacks on people’s rights.”[104] Her point, unfortunately, has been vindicated. Ironically, but tragically, women – particularly Aboriginal women – are now the fastest growing group of prisoners in Australia. But at the time her position was met with howls of outrage by many on the left. Some argued that the left should be part of such events in order to influence their outcome. But it flies in the face of reality to think that the left, tiny as it is and lacking authority in any broader layer in society, could possibly influence any project driven by middle and ruling class figures. Even if the left had mass roots, to influence – or more to the point, defeat – any program pushed by the state and respectable society, would take an enormous mobilisation, not as participants, but as opponents. To a lesser extent, many on the left were disoriented by the Cronulla riot of 2005 in the face of Labor premier Bob Carr’s invocation of the racist trope of Lebanese men threatening the purity of “white” women. Many who participated in an anti-racist rally a week later, insisted we had to acknowledge the sexism of Lebanese men rather than simply make a clear statement of opposition to the racism which had led to the riots.

There are no easy solutions, but socialists have to start from reality and what has the possibility of a progressive outcome, not fall in behind cynical campaigns by those in positions of authority who are responsible for the conditions which breed sexual violence. Feelings of atomisation, the notion that we are all just individuals subject to forces beyond our control is one of the key buttresses of capitalism and a sentiment that demobilises the working class. This atomisation pushes workers to cast around for a force that can offer some protection against individual threats. Because there is currently no organised mass working class force that can realistically prevent anti-social behaviour, concern about violence leads virtually inevitably to greater identification with authority. Johanna Brenner, a socialist feminist, comments that as confidence in the movement’s ability to win reforms wanes, “reliance on the coercive arm of the state” by feminists in the US has increased.[105] The state is after all the force in society best equipped to control the behaviour of individuals. It devotes much time and effort to this end – much of it in the guise of “protecting” the weak.

Bigger jails and more repressive laws do nothing to rebuild working class self-confidence and traditions of solidarity – things which do push back against the alienation at the heart of the problem. With a stronger working class movement, able and willing to fight for better conditions for staff which give them a sense of dignity and self-worth, for programs which aim to heighten awareness and minimise prejudices backed up by a less bigoted atmosphere generally, it is conceivable that even under capitalism, abuse could be minimised both in personal life and in public institutions.

There are concrete things to campaign for which can contribute to that rebuilding. These include fighting budget cuts by both Liberal and Labor governments which erode working class living standards and increase tensions in personal relationships; and in particular, campaigning for decent, affordable housing, to raise the dole, to make the supporting parent’s payment available until children are older and de-linked from maintenance from ex-partners, for child care to be affordable and accessible. Also important are campaigns like that for equal marriage rights, support for students who campaign against homophobia and transphobia in schools, standing up for children’s right to have a say over their lives and things like access to social security when they need to leave a violent household, anything which provides young people with images of women and men that don’t rely on the sexist stereotypes, campaigns for equal pay. In the unions we need to demand they have officers who can attend a workplace to deal with accusations of sexual harassment in an appropriately collective way, rather than give employers an excuse to intervene.

These are all things which could actually give anyone, children, women and men, some ability to live independent lives, to leave abusive partners or parents, to find the confidence to expose abusers in institutions and bureaucracies. There is much to fight for which does not involve strengthening the repressive aspects of the state. They are the kinds of struggles which can unite workers on a class basis, which raise the need for stronger unions and more responsive trade union officials. Not all of these will yield immediate results or necessarily have sexual violence as their main focus. But the connections between the ways in which the system denies control to the mass of people over their lives, work and sexuality, and how it fosters the conditions that enable and encourage sexual violence, make such an approach necessary. It is the only way to weaken the social roots of sexual violence.


As Helen Razer says in the book Fury: Women write about Sex, Power and Violence, a lot of the discussions about sexual violence are focused on the experiences of individuals, emphasising that a sexist society produces violence against women. This can mean that

we ignore the possibility that our social structures beget violence at a level even more fundamental than that of gender difference…

Labour, surveillance, psychiatry, environmental degradation and other institutions claim us physically and emotionally.[106]

Clearly, sexual abuse, from inappropriate touching to pressure, coercion or rape, is a traumatising and widespread experience in this society. The causes are multiple and complex and can only be understood as rooted in the economic and social structures of capitalism, a class society which has taken alienation to its extremes. The commodification of sex and the objectification of our bodies, the sexist stereotypes and the ideal of aggressive masculinity create an environment conducive to abuse. If sex is up for sale, why not use bodies, which are no more than objects, for your own gratification? Why not follow any sadistic desires when there are others with less status, or under your control? After all the state actually uses sexual violence to impose its authority, to terrorise individuals or communities, and actively encourages its representatives to dream up innovative new ways to humiliate and degrade people. The indifference of respectable institutions which prioritise the smooth order of the system over individual rights normalises sexual abuse as a means of asserting and maintaining authority.

Sexual violence can be a conscious employment of terror or the will to subordinate. It can be the result of individuals lashing out because of the stressful experience of life in this society. It can be the result of both. The oppressed, from women to children or the elderly and LGBTI people, are easy targets both because of the dominant ideas which attribute a lesser status to them and the material discrimination and disadvantage which limit their ability to assert their autonomy. Alienation and the power of the state and its bureaucracies turn individuals into cogs in a wheel of inhumanity and sterility. This dynamic in the public arena legitimises abuse in the most intimate, private aspects of our lives.

The widespread growth of industries like sex trafficking, which involve possibly millions including women and children of both genders, and child pornography which involves torture and even death of children as young as a few months old cannot be understood as some horrendous aberration. They rise from the putrid system of profit-driven capitalism. They flourish in the poorest countries where desperate parents sell children and women gamble on getting into a richer country. Its products are consumed in the richest countries, feeding the profits of men and women organising the sex industry, highlighting the absolute depravity and inhumanity capitalism breeds. These extremes might seem unconnected to the day to day experience of many intimate partners, of people living in need of care or under the control of authority figures. But they arise from the same structures and are produced by the same society.

As Lukács puts it, capitalism “knows no bounds and scorns every human dignity”.[107]

These are the roots of sexual violence in our society.

Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC), Intimate Partner Homicide, 6 February 2015,

Australian Institute of Family Studies 2013, “The prevalence of child abuse and neglect”, July,

Bloodworth, Sandra 1990, “The poverty of patriarchy theory”, Socialist Review, 2, Winter, Melbourne.

Bloodworth, Sandra 1992, “Rape, Sexual Violence and Capitalism”, Socialist Review, 5, Autumn.

Brenner, Johanna 2006 [2000], Women and the Politics of Class, Askar Books for South Asia.

Broken Rites researcher n.d., “‘Towards Healing’ helps church, rather than the victims”, Broken Rites Australia,

Brownmiller, Susan 1986 [1975] Against Our Will. Men, Women and Rape, Penguin.

Bumiller, Kristin 2008, In an Abusive State. How Neoliberalism Appropriated the Feminist Movement Against Sexual Violence, Duke University Press.

Callinicos, Alex 1988, Making History. Agency, Structure and Change in Social Theory, Cornell University Press.

CTLiveris, “Behind closed doors: outing LGBTI domestic violence”,

Davis, Angela Y. 2003, Are Prisons Obsolete? Seven Stories Press.

de Beauvoir, Simone 1987 [1949], The Second Sex, Penguin.

D’Emilio, John 1983, Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities. The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States, 1940-1970, University of Chicago Press.

Donat, Patricia L.N. and John D’Emilio 1992, “Feminist Redefinition of Rape and Sexual Assault: Historical Foundations and Change”, Journal of Social Issues, 48 (1), pp9-22.

Dunne, Michael P., David M. Purdie, Michelle D. Cook, Frances M. Boyle, Jake M. Najman 2003, “Is child sexual abuse declining? Evidence from a population-based survey of men and women in Australia”, Child Abuse & Neglect 27, Centre for Public Health Research, Queensland University of Technology,

Fieldes, Diane 2010, “The Northern Territory Intervention and the liberal defence of racism”, Marxist Left Review, 1, Spring.

Fieldes, Diane 2013, “The impact of women’s changing role in the workplace”, Marxist Left Review, 6, Winter.

Fileborn, Bianca 2012, Sexual violence and gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, intersex, and queer communities”, Australian Institute of Family Studies,

Foucault, Michel 1978 [1976], The History of Sexuality Volume 1. An Introduction, Penguin.

George, Amanda and Debbie Kilroy 2004, “Prisons the Perpetrators of Violence and Discrimination against Women”,

Grewal, Kieran 2007, “The ‘Young Muslim Man’ in Australian Public Discourse”, Transforming Cultures eJournal, 2 (1), November,

Gruber, Aya 2009, “Rape, Feminism, and the War on Crime,” College of Law, University of Iowa, December,

Harman, Chris 1994, “Engels and the origins of human society”, International Socialism, 65, special issue “The revolutionary ideas of Frederick Engels”.

Heilpern, David M. 2005, “Sexual Assault of Prisoners: Reflections”, UNSW Law Journal 28 (1).

Henderson, Holly 2007, “Feminism, Foucault, and Rape: A Theory and Politics of Rape Prevention”, Berkeley Journal of Gender Law & Justice 22 (1).

Hill, Jess 2015, “Home Truths: The costs and causes of domestic violence”, The Monthly, March,

Lukács, Georg 1971, History and Class Consciousness. Studies in Marxist Dialectics, Merlin Press.

McGregor, Sheila 2011, “Sexuality, alienation and capitalism”, International Socialism, 130, Spring.

McQuire, Amy 2015, “All feminists are created equal, but some are more equal than others”, New Matilda;

Marx, Karl 1954, Capital. A Critique of Political Economy, Volume I, Progress Publishers.

Marx, Karl 1959, Capital. A Critique of Political Economy, Volume III, Progress Publishers.

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Marx, Karl and Frederick Engels 1976, The German Ideology, Progress Publishers.

Ollman, Bertell 1971, Alienation. Marx’s Conception of Man in Capitalist Society, Cambridge University Press.

Optus Zoo 2014, “What It’s Like to Be Tortured by the CIA”, 6 August,

Orr, Judith 2010, “Marxism and Feminism”, International Socialism, 127, Summer.

O’Shea, Louise 2014, “Marxism and Women’s Liberation”, Marxist Left Review, 7, Summer.

Powell, Anastasia 2010, Sex, Power and Consent. Youth Culture and the Unwritten Rules, Cambridge University Press.

Razer, Helen, “Smash it up”, in Samantha Trenoweth (ed) 2015, Fury: Women write about Sex, Power and Violence, Hardie Grant Books.

Rosin, Hanna n.d., “When Men are Raped”,

Russell, Diana E.H. 1990, Rape in Marriage, Indiana University Press.

Segal, Lynne 1990, Slow Motion. Changing Masculinities, Changing Men, Virago.

Segal, Lynne 2008, “Violence’s victims: the gendered landscape”, in Leo Panitch and Colin Leys (eds), Violence Today. Actually Existing Barbarism, Merlin Press.

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Smith, Sharon 2015, “Capitalism and sexual assault. Toward a more comprehensive understanding”, International Socialist Review, 96, Spring.

Tolman, Deborah L. 2002, Dilemmas of Desire. Teenage Girls Talk about Sexuality, Harvard University Press.

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Workplace Gender Equality Agency 2014, “% Gender Workplace Statistics at a Glance”, February.

[1] Simmel 1971, p324.

[2] Marx and Engels 1976, pp37 and 42.

[3] I listed 10 examples of these conferences etc. in Bloodworth 1992, p5.

[4] Robyn Dixon and Michael Magazanik, The Age, 3 June 1993.

[5] “How do we tackle domestic violence? Here’s what seven police chiefs said”, The Guardian, 3 November 2014.

[6] Gay Alcorn, “Culture of hostility to women leads to domestic violence, say police chiefs”, The Guardian, 3 November 2014.

[7] The difference between say India and Australia indicates this possibility.

[8] For a fuller exposition of this argument see O’Shea 2014.

[9] A small sample: ABC News, Tracy Bowden, “Stephanie Scott: High-profile murder case sparks renewed calls for Australia to confront ‘epidemic’ of violence against women”, 14 April 2015; Phil Cleary, “Tony Abbott fundamentally misunderstands the violence against women epidemic”, The Age, 16 February 2015; Wendy Tuohy, “Our Shame: family violence deaths double”, Herald Sun, 18 February 2015.

[10] Fieldes 2013, p40.

[11] Workplace Gender Equality Agency 2014.

[12] Tom Bramble, “Intergenerational theft? No, it’s class theft”, Red Flag, 5 March 2015.

[13] Tom Bramble, “These bastards want to grind us into the dust”, Red Flag, 14 May 2014.

[14] Rachel Olding, “Government failed domestic violence test”, Sydney Morning Herald, 13 May 2015.

[15] Bianca Hall, “Women trapped by housing shortage”, The Age, 22 May 2015; Hill 2015.

[16] Hill 2015.

[17] Simone White, “Women’s services gutted in NSW”, Red Flag, 14 July 2014.

[18] Hill 2015.

[19] Hill 2015.

[20] Chris Johnston, “Growing Pain”, The Saturday Age, 30 May 2015.

[21] Hill 2015.

[22] Hill 2015.

[23] Hill 2015.

[24] This is important as it is disorienting to think that we are confronting two structures, that of patriarchy as well as capitalism. Bloodworth 1990.

[25] Donat and D’Emilio 1992.

[26] Segal 1990, pp233-34; I checked all the feminist writings I have in my library from the 1970s and none of them before Brownmiller dealt with rape or sexual abuse.

[27] de Beauvoir 1987, chapter on “Sexual Initiation”, pp392-423.

[28] de Beauvoir 1987, pp93 and 97.

[29] Brownmiller 1986, p8.

[30] Russell 1990, pxxii.

[31] Brownmiller 1986, pp5-6.

[32] Hence the literature since the 1980s has become predominantly concerned with domestic violence.

[33] Bloodworth 1990; Bloodworth 1992.

[34] Jane Lee, “Pell may have known of abuse by Ridsdale”, Konrad Marshall, “Cluster of suicides grows” and “Faith in the church is lost, but faith in justice returns”, The Age, 20 May 2015.

[35] Broken Rites researcher n.d.

[36] Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS) 2013.

[37] Dunne et al 2003.

[38] CTLiveris. ACON is the New South Wales leading health promotion organisation specialising in HIV prevention, HIV support and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) health,

[39] V. Braun, J. Schmidt, N. Gavey and J. Fenaughty 2009, “Sexual coercion among gay and bisexual men in Aotearoa/New Zealand”, Journal of Homosexuality, 53 (3), quoted in Fileborn 2012.

[40] Fileborn 2012.

[41] For an example of a debate which relied on this narrow definition see Henderson 2007; the problem with too narrow a definition of rape is discussed in Bloodworth 1992.

[42] Segal 1990, pp235-36.

[43] Smith 2015, p82.

[44] Martin S. Fiebert 2004, “References examining Assaults by Women on Their Spouses or Male Partners: An Annotated Bibliography”, Sexuality & Culture, 8
(3-4), p140, quoted in Segal 2008, p107.

[45] Segal 2008, p107; Linda Gordon’s arguments are from her book Heroes of Their Own Lives, quoted by Segal.

[46] Seymour H. Hersch 2004, “Torture at Abu Ghraib. American soldiers brutalized Iraqis. How far up does the responsibility go?”, The New Yorker, 5 May; CNN News, “Iraq prison scandal fast facts”,; Optus Zoo 2014.

[47] AIC 2015.

[48] Segal 2008, p109.

[49] Rosin n.d.

[50] Quoted in Smith 2015, p82.

[51] Jill Filipovic, “Is the US the only country where more men are raped than women?”, The Guardian, 22 February 2012.

[52] Heilpern 2005.

[53] Marx 1975, p333.

[54] Marx 1959, p830.

[55] Quoted in Amy Muldoon, “The oppressed majority”, Socialist Worker (US), 26 February 2015.

[56] Marx 1975, p324. Emphasis in original.

[57] Marx 1954, p77.

[58] Marx 1959, p830.

[59] Ollman 1971, p135.

[60] Marx 1954, pp104-5.

[61] Broken Rites researcher n.d.

[62] Lukács 1971, p102.

[63] Lukács 1971, p92.

[64] This was a subject of debate in International Socialism over several issues. My argument draws on McGregor 2011.

[65] For more argumentation, see McGregor 2011 and Harman 1994.

[66] D’Emilio 1983, p3.

[67] Callinicos 1988, pp24-26.

[68] Foucault 1978, p124.

[69] Foucault 1978, p36.

[70] Foucault 1978, p107.

[71] Bloodworth 1990.

[72] Foucault 1978, p70.

[73] Foucault 1978, p35.

[74] Foucault 1978, p45.

[75] Foucault 1978, p155.

[76] Davis 2003, pp82-83.

[77] Davis 2003, p81.

[78] George and Kilroy 2004.

[79] UNICEF 1996.

[80] Quoted in Smith 2015, p77.

[81] Nick McKenzie, “Pedophile ring claims unfounded”, Sydney Morning Herald,
5 July 2009.

[82] McQuire 2015; see also Fieldes 2010.

[83] Factually, not all the victims were white. Grewal 2007.

[84] Segal 2008, p112.

[85] O’Shea 2014.

[86] This is explained in Fieldes 2013.

[87] Jason Dowling, “Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson calls for end to ‘state-sanctioned discrimination’ on marriage”, The Age, 10 June 2015.

[88] Sandra Bloodworth, “Women, capitalism and class”, bitstream/1885/42701/2/Women.pdf.

[89] Russell 1990.

[90] Orr 2010, p41.

[91] Tolman 2002; Powell 2010.

[92] Powell 2010, p.78.

[93] Powell 2010, p.78.

[94] Pia Akerman, “Children the forgotten victims in family violence campaign”, The Australian, 20 May 2015.

[95] Heilpern 2005.

[96] Nino Bucci, “Premier backs new criminal charge for family violence offenders”, The Age, 1 June 2015.

[97] “Suspended prison sentences now banned in all Victorian courts”, The Guardian, 1 September 2014.

[98] One recent response has been the rise of “physical feminism” which promotes self-defence training for women. I don’t think they have come up with a solution, but at least they understand the problem. Henderson 2007.

[99] Gruber 2009, p582.

[100] Bumiller 2008, pxii.

[101] Bumiller 2008, p2.

[102] Bumiller 2008, pxv.

[103] Viktoria Ivanova, “Bitter fruit of law and order agenda”, Red Flag, 15 July 2014.

[104] Louise O’Shea, “Jill Meagher, Reclaim the Night and the political right”, Socialist Alternative (Australia) November 2012.

[105] Brenner 2006, pp264-66.

[106] Razer 2015, p190.

[107] Lukács 1971, p90.

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